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Picture Shelf DIY

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A picture shelf decorated with black frames and glass bottles with faux succulent

If you’re new to woodworking, or even if you’re not, this picture shelf DIY is a simple project. Although it starts out as new wood, when you’re done this tutorial, your friends will think you found a vintage picture shelf while you were shopping in an antique store!

Hi, and welcome! I’m Lisa from The Old Tree Cottage. Making decor that looks vintage is what I love to do because I like decor pieces that look like they could have a history. Not to mention vintage-inspired decor is my happy place!


How much wood you need for your picture shelf DIY will depend on how long a shelf you decide to make. I made mine 42″ long, meaning all three boards needed were 42″ long.

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1. Cut the wood & assemble the picture shelf

There are only 3 pieces of wood used to make this picture shelf. I wanted mine 42″ long, so I cut all three boards 42″ long. You may have a different size in mind, so cut to the size you need.

  1. Cut one 1×4 board to your preferred length.
  2. Cut two 1×2 boards the same length as the board in step 1.
  3. Apply the glue to the length of one edge of the 1×4, as shown in Fig. 2.
  4. Attach the first 1×2 flush with the bottom of the 1×4. (Fig. 2)
  5. Apply glue to the length of one edge of the second 1×2, as shown in Fig. 3.
  6. Place it on top of the 1×4, lining up the edge. (Fig. 3)
  7. The last thing to do is to attach the 1×2 from the underside of the 1×4. (Fig. 3)

2. Distress the wood

At this point, how much you distress the wood for this picture shelf DIY is completely up to you. A wire brush attached to a drill is one of the best things going in order to give the wood a textured, worn look of 100-year-old barnwood. I also added some dings to the wood using pliers.

  1. Give the wood some dings by using different parts of pliers or whatever you would like in order to give the wood some wear and tear.
  2. Before you move on to the drill with the wire brush, make sure to secure the picture shelf in a clamp to stop it from moving when you do the next step.
  3. Hold the drill tight as you run the wire brush over the wood because the drill will want to jump around.
  4. As the wire brush removes the pulp between the grain of the wood, you’ll start to see ridges which mimic the look of 100-year-old barnwood.
  5. Finally, finish by sanding all over, just enough to make the wood look worn instead of freshly distressed.
  6. If you plan to stain your wood instead of painting it, you can skip the rest of the tutorial. (Thanks for coming!)

3. Before you paint, do this:

In order to get authentic vintage-looking wood, layering is the approach I use to get the best results.

  1. The first step before painting is to apply a black water wash. (Fig. 4) The black water wash will give the exposed wood at the end of the project a vintage look. Mix 2 tsp of any black paint with one cup of water and brush on the whole shelf. Let dry.
  2. When using white paint, the odds are the wood will eventually bleed through, making the white look dirty. To prevent this, spray two coats of clear Lacquer or a clear stain blocker. (Fig. 5) Let the first coat dry before doing the second coat. Let the second coat dry before moving on to the next step.
  3. Rub candle wax on the picture shelf wherever you’d like to see the wood exposed after painting. (Fig. 6)
  4. Once the candle wax is applied, paint Elmer’s glue in random areas where you’d like to see the paint crackle. (Fig. 7) I like to overlap a bit of glue with the candle wax because it adds another dimension when aging the new wood.
  5. And finally, take a paper towel and dab the glue. I find this step prevents you from getting those big fake-looking cracks once you’ve painted because the finer the glue, the finer the cracks.
  6. Before you paint, run a heat gun over the glue for a few seconds to help form a skin on the glue. If it dries too much, you won’t get the crackling because it’s the act of glue drying that causes the cracks in the paint.

4. Painting and distressing the picture shelf

I used homemade chalk paint for this shelf, but I also love using Fusion Mineral Paint. I’ll let you in on a secret; we’re going to break a rule about painting over Elmer’s glue. Everyone says don’t overwork it; just paint once. I say add a solid coat of paint and run your brush over it another time or two if needed to get even coverage. The reason for this is simple: I think big cracks look fake. I prefer smaller cracks that look more organic; the way to get them is to break the common rules!

  1. A solid coat of white paint is applied over the glue before the glue has dried. The cracks will appear as the paint dries.
  2. Once the paint has dried, take 100-grit sandpaper and lightly sand away any paint where you want the picture shelf to look more worn.
  3. If you used chalk paint, you’d need to protect the finish with a matte clear spray or whatever is your go-to.

Hanging the picture shelf

The key to safely hanging the picture shelf is to make sure the screws hit a stud. I used a stud finder to locate the studs.

  1. Make a mark on the wall for the top and ends where you want your picture shelf to sit.
  2. Then take a stud finder to locate the studs, transferring those marks onto the top ledge of the shelf.
  3. Drill a pilot hole for each screw on the back part of the ledge where the studs will be.
  4. You can either counter-sink your screws or leave them as is. I left mine because I knew they would be hidden behind the decor.
  5. Attach one end of the shelf to the stud and then get the level out to ensure the shelf is level before adding the other screw.
I hope you had as much fun as I did making this picture shelf DIY. Even with the extra steps to make it look vintage, it was still a quick project!

If you’re looking for more DIY projects to make, you can find more inspiration and tutorials here.

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